Saturday 25 May 2019

Fallout from Bertie and Celia's long goodbye

JEROME REILLY WILL the heartless and deeply-conservative elements within Fianna Fail who despised Celia Larkin from day one be happy now that the Taoiseach and his lover have split? Paradoxically, the answer is no.

The public failure of Mr Ahern's second serious relationship creates doubt in the minds of voters about the Taoiseach's constancy in matters of the heart.

The electorate will look at two women, both of a certain age and left on the sidelines of Bertie's sporting life, and question his ability to commit.

Women voters, especially, may feel they can legitimately enquire if the Taoiseach is simply unlucky in love or a feckless and ruthless lothario.

With her new hairstyle and her gutsy "I'm getting on with life" demeanour Celia will have the sympathy of many women. Not so Mr Ahern.

Yet friends and acquaintances insist this is unfair to both parties.

"They are both innocent and they are both to blame. It sounds mundane and ordinary but it began to fizzle out nearly two years ago. It's been a long, slow and painful goodbye," said one friend.

It's impossible to say what proportion of voters will feel Ms Larkin has given Mr Ahern the best years of her life, with little in return but a media mauling and the deep and vicious antipathy of those closest to him. Certainly, some will continue to demonise her as a scarlet woman who robbed another woman's husband.

Bertie on the market again creates problems. When he attends the Galway races at the end of the month every nakedly-ambitious Fianna Fail female with an eye on the main chance will be fighting for a photo on Bertie's arm.

It promises to be unedifying spectacle as the new "single" Taoiseach heads west. While he remains in high office, any new woman in Mr Ahern's life will be massacred. The more beautiful and youthful, the more rocks that will be gathered for the ritual stoning.

The fervent wish of Ahern's inner court is a return to his first love, Miriam. Their hopes that this is actually possible appear improbably high.

But where did it go wrong with Celia? Friends and close associates say much of the speculation is wild and uninformed.

They say both Celia Larkin and Mr Ahern have been the victim of a vicious rumour mill. Unsubstantiated stories of wild rows, drinks being thrown, sharp words in public places and a public slap on the face have all been circulated by poisonous elements.

It would be a strange relationship that had no rows, but there was no big bust-up, nor is there any third party involved with either Celia or the Taoiseach, friends insist.

Next month's wedding of Bertie's daughter Georgina in a Hello-sponsored full-colour megabash with the Taoiseach's wife Miriam centre stage did provoke Celia to make a real assessment of the state of their relationship.

But this was merely a final straw. Her ultimately pessimistic view of their relationship, which had been going downhill for the last 18 months, was that marriage to "the Bert" has never been further away.

"The truth of the matter is that, despite the photographs at the big functions, Bertie and Celia have hardly spent any real time together for the last 18 months."

"That wasn't their fault. They were both so busy. Celia craves financial independence but she has found running a business tough and unforgiving. People haven't got that much money to spend on Brazilians anymore.

"She's under pressure. Of course, during the same time Bertie has been exhausted from running a re-election campaign. I think he is still tired and he's got worries of his own though that booing in Clones was a real Sinn Fein orchestrated job," one friend said.

Another said that Celia had simply been worn down.

"Look she brought a lot of it on herself. I don't know if it was because she was unsure of her position, but she could be brusque and a bit arrogant. As Coco Chanel said you only have one chance to make a first impression. With some of those closest to the Taoiseach she made a bad first impression years ago.

"The one thing about Celia is that she works as hard as anyone so they were always apart. I think it was just getting both of them down."

Another source who admitted he had never "warmed to Celia" blamed Mr Ahern for the break-up.

"She was very good for Bertie and I don't think she ever got the credit for that. She kept people at arms' length and protected him. You knew if you wanted to get an idea to Bertie it was sometimes better to work through her. Bertie suffers from inertia in his politics and it was the same in his personal life. I mean it was a right mess. The Americans couldn't understand the arrangement. The Chinese couldn't understand the arrangement," the source said.

As both Celia Larkin and Bertie Ahern come to terms with the sadness and regrets that must inevitably follow the long goodbye there will also be those who will question the media's right to examine their relationship.

But Ms Larkin was much more than a long-term girlfriend. She was the Taoiseach's political touchstone and confidant. Jetted across the globe at the taxpayer's expense as his official partner Celia lived a high-octane life in the fast lane.

Celia was wife in everything but name as far as Ireland and the world at large were concerned, and she made shrewd use of the high profile that role gave her.

When Bill and Hillary Clinton stood on stage at the Guinness Hop Store, it was the cool, blond and elegant Celia, not the Tanaiste or any other elected politician, whose face was beamed across the world by CNN.

And it has been thus for many years. It took middle Ireland a long time to get used to Ms Larkin's elevation to political and ceremonial spouse, but eventually even reactionary and unforgiving dinosaurs within the party grudgingly grew accustomed to her presence. They had to. Unfortunately for Mr Ahern that means some will view this as the break-up of a second marriage, rather than merely the petering out of a long-term relationship that had run its course.

Whether it was Celia who ended their arrangement or not, the woman once branded in some circles as a "homewrecker", will be martyred.

Her name will no longer appear below the gold harp in embossed script on invitation cards to State functions and now it will be a taxi rather than a Mercedes that will bring her home late at night.

The plush State residence of Farmleigh, where Celia entertained her staff and business associates with mince pies and mulled wine on December 21 last, will be off limits. The failure of Ms Larkin to attend a luncheon she was to co-host in honour of the German president, sparking a diplomatic embarrassment, was a strong official indicator that the relationship was over.

Both Mr Ahern and Ms Larkin are older now and wiser. Yet, when it began, their love affair was reckless, daring and blind to the devastating consequences.

Whatever the state of his marriage to Miriam at that time, there is no doubt that Mr Ahern's friendship with Celia around the time he was Lord Mayor of Dublin 16 years ago caused devastation.

The animosity engendered among family and friends, caused by the perceived hurt suffered by Miriam Ahern, sowed the seeds of long-standing antipathy to Celia among elements of the Ahern court and, most importantly in the long term, his nearest and dearest.

The frisson between Bertie and Celia at a function in the Mansion House around St Patrick's Day 1987, when he was Dublin's first citizen and his wife first lady of the capital has gone down in political folklore. There, in front of party stalwarts, Bertie Ahern, the shrewd new northside wunderkid was losing the run of himself with a young constituency activist called Celia Larkin.

Only Miriam Ahern and Bertie Ahern know what the true state of their marriage was at that time but, rightly or wrongly, Ms Larkin was forever linked with their estrangement.

"In the past few months Bertie has gotten even closer to his daughters. He has been supportive of Cecelia with her book, and, at the same time, Georgina's wedding obviously meant less time with Celia and more time with Miriam.

"I think that Celia thought she was strong enough to take on all those around Bertie who didn't like her, but she wasn't. And there was no sign of marriage. There couldn't be. This is a man who attends Mass every Saturday night and every day of Lent. That's part of his make-up. He is a devout catholic."

That sad summary of the end of their affair is far closer to the truth than the rumours of a vicious and acrimonious split. The question now is, where do they both go from here?

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